When I was barely 16, I sat down with the guidance counselor at my high school who proceeded to ask me what my future plans were, so I told him. I wanted to be a war correspondent. He replied, "Oh, a photojournalist?" I replied, 'No, a war correspondent.' I'm pretty sure I saw him hesitate before he realized I wasn't kidding. I was being specific. So, instead of trying to dissuade me, he told me what classes I should be prepared to take in order to achieve my goals. This being the late 1960's, long before the advent of computers and cell phones, the idea of taking stenography left me cold. But, I did not voice this to him, and I wasn't deterred.
I was ultimately thwarted by my own choices. Early marriage and motherhood did not allow for globetrotting journalism. Looking back, I feel fairly confident in saying I'm okay with that. It still sits in the back of my mind as something that would have led for an interesting life, but I found other ways to take life out of the mundane, and they have served me well. I also get to remind myself every day that it's not over yet. I may not find myself hunkered down in the jungle, or behind a barricade next to a bombed out building with bullets flying, while I'm trying to snap a picture and tell a story I think the world needs to know, but one never knows where life will take them.
For many years I collected National Geographic and Life magazines that contained stories written and photographed by Vietnam War correspondents. More than one held a story from my hero, Dickey Chapelle. Dickey was a girl from Wisconsin whose life took her into the heart of war, if there is such a thing, where she witnessed and recorded, so all the world could see, its harsh reality. Wherever she went, she wore a pair of pearl earrings, small bits of beauty among the horror and a reminder to me of the biblical admonition: "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine."
On November 4, 1965, while on assignment near Chu Lai, Vietnam, she died doing what she loved, perhaps was even born to do, still wearing those pearl earrings. Her friend and fellow correspondent, Henri Huett, took her picture as this brave and honorable woman received last rites. I cannot speak for her, but cannot imagine she would have wanted her death recorded any other way. A few years later, Huett, along with several other correspondents, would lose their lives when their helicopter was shot down over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.
In January of 2005, I was given a book called Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina.
It contains the stories and photographs of many people I have come to admire. It covers journalists from all over the globe who lost their lives, including those from the "other side" of these conflicts. It remains among my prized possessions. Inside, my friend inscribed: "These brave men and women are an example to all of us. May we face our future with hope, courage and love." And, despite all the obstacles we put in our own way, I like to think we're still doing just that, although certainly not at the level of these very dedicated people who gave their lives to bring the truth to the world. I would be happy with even an infinitesimal part of their courage.
While looking through this book again today, I found this final message from Associated Press reporter, Mean Leange, who was in the Phnom Penh post office, where he had been receiving reports from other Cambodian reporters, shortly before Cambodia descended into hell, falling to the Khmer Rouge on April 16, 1975.
I alone in post office, losing contact with our guys. Only guy seeing me is Moonface at 13:00 [1:00 P.M.]. I have so numerous stories to cover.
Only call from Seang [an AP reporter], still at Hotel Le Phnom. Seang told me black-jacketed guys [the Khmer Rouge] want his bike.
I feel rather trembling. Do not know how to file out stories.
How quiet the streets. Every minute changes. At 13:00 local my wife came and saw me here at post office saying that Monatio [French for the National Movement, or Khmer Rouge] threatened my family out of the house. Vichith lost his camera to the black-jacketed guys.
Appreciate instructions. I not admitted to Le Phnom Hotel this morning into Red Cross security zone. Need press card. I have none. Last night they admitted me to Le Phnom.
The Red Cross ordered removal of all belongings whatsoever having military aspect.
I, with a small typewriter, shuttle between the post office and home.
May be last cable today and forever.
George Esper, chief correspondent for the Associated Press in Indochina, replied in a message to Mean Leange, telling him to leave the post office immediately and seek safety wherever he could.
Mean lived in obscurity for a few years, hiding his involvement with the AP. Eventually, he was found out through his own inexplicable admission. Wanting for some time to return to Phnom Phenh, he asked for permission to do so from the Khmer Rouge, thereby revealing his true identity. His request resulted in his immediate execution.